FBU firefighters union protesting against Tory fire service cuts in London - photo Paula Mitchell
FBU firefighters union protesting against Tory fire service cuts in London - photo Paula Mitchell

The national executive council of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has recommended to members that they reject the Tory government’s insulting 2% pay offer. Joe Weir, FBU executive council member for the South East, spoke to Paul Couchman, Staines Socialist Party

So Joe, starting off, what are the industrial relations in Surrey Fire and Rescue Service like at the moment?

It’s been a very difficult period in over the last couple of years. We had the ‘Making Surrey Safer’ plan, which is widely acknowledged as having failed. You’ve got frontline fire appliances off the run, left, right and centre.  We’ve seen an increase in response times.

That resulted, in 2019, in the local members balloting for industrial action over some of the changes taking place. At that point we ran into the Covid pandemic. It was right at the time, the union took the decision locally and nationally to cancel the industrial action. But that did nothing for industrial relations and we went through a very bad patch.

However, we are seeing glimmers of hope in Surrey in the last few months. We’ve seen the chief fire officer retire and an acting chief fire officer in post, who seems to be engaging more with local officials. There’s been increased support from local unions – Unison, and Surrey county council trade union group – and as a result we seem to be making progress on a number of issues. We hope that continues, but obviously we will always do what is right for our members and fire fighters.

Are you still campaigning against cuts to the fire service in Surrey?

Yes, the campaign never stops really. There’s been an acceptance now from certain sections of management that actually the cuts have gone too far and too deep. We’re hoping that this can open some discussions around trying to increase the establishment, to make things safer. Because it has become dangerous. We have seen nationally, since 2010, 11,000 firefighter jobs cut. We need more funding, so that we can make it the fire service that residents deserve.

What’s your feelings on the RMT strikes and the potential wave of public sector strike ballots?

We absolutely support the striking workers of the RMT. It can’t be right that employers can seek to change terms and conditions, and to remove jobs, all the while ensuring that rail workers, and every other worker across the public sector, take real terms pay cuts.

Inflation is at 11%. We’ve got pay offers of 2% for the fire and rescue service! We’re consulting our members. The advice from the executive is to reject that pay offer, because 2% would be a 9% real terms pay cut. And that’s on top of the fact that since 2010, with the pay freeze and the 1% – 2% pay rises we’ve had, we have seen real terms pay cuts of in excess of 20%. So that can’t continue. We need a pay rise across the workforce.

I hope a number of unions take the lead from the RMT, including my own union. And that members see that strength in collective action, and solidarity amongst workers, is what we need to make those in government, and rogue bosses who continue to get inflation-busting pay rises, realise that everyone deserves a piece of the pie. We’ve got spiralling profits whilst we got firefighters and nurses going to foodbanks. That can’t be right in anybody’s society!

Absolutely. In your opinion do you think the FBU will end up joining the wave of public sector strikes?

The executive council recommendation to reject the pay offer, has in itself thrown up the questions of what will be next. We are talking about industrial action, nothing has been ruled out.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and that will be done in full conjunction with our members, as you’d expect. We are a grassroots union, it’ll be for them to determine how we respond, how we fight back.

What’s your thoughts on the discussion and the decision of the FBU to continue to be affiliated to the Labour Party?

This was debated. At the executive council it was felt at this time that the Labour Party still offers workers, and particularly the fire and rescue service, the best opportunity to progress the challenges workers are facing.

But let’s be honest about it. We’ve got an individual in the leadership of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, who campaigned on pledges virtually all of which he has now reneged on. We had some very popular policies in the Corbyn years, that included renationalisation of energy, and water etc, and again they seem to be moving away from that. We’ve got shadow cabinet members tripping over themselves to avoid supporting striking workers, seemingly at the instruction of the leader of the Labour Party.

That’s not something the FBU wants to see. We think the leadership of the Labour Party need to start talking and engaging with unions again, and supporting workers, and moving workers front and centre of any campaigns.

Am I naive enough to think that we won’t have another resolution back to conference next year? No I’m not. I think it’s likely, inevitable, if we continue down this vein, if the Labour Party don’t change direction. But we feel at the moment that we should be trying to move the Labour Party back to its original roots, to actually stand side-by-side with workers rather than seek to ostracise them and leave them to face the struggles that are overwhelming on their own.

Anything else you’d like to say to readers of the Socialist?

Keep up the good work. We’re all fighting for the same thing. And I hope to see some of you on the picket lines on 27 July. Solidarity to the workers!